John and Claudia and Lily and Jack were coming down for the weekend. "We'll arrive in time for lunch," they said. I've been had that way before. Some people have a strange idea about when lunch might reasonably be expected to be eaten. By my calculation, that time is about 1pm. I'm relaxed about 1.15pm. 1.30pm and I begin to get agitated. After that my sugar levels drop so precipitately that, come 1.45pm, I resemble the Hulk. Or Wayne Rooney on a petulant night.
If your guests are travelling from far away, however, you have to factor in: lateness in leaving, because they're always late in leaving; motorway madness; the fact that they had to turn back because they had forgotten the dog; unforeseen stoppages (so said dog could have a pee) . . . It all results in the same thing. They're late, late, late, and I'm cross, cross, cross.
Few people share my view. In most households, Saturday lunch is a Cinderella meal. It doesn't have the ritual magnificence of Sunday lunch or even Sunday brunch. But I have a soft spot for underdog meals. A little forethought, a bit of cooking, and Saturday lunch lights up. It's never going to be a 100W or halogen number, more one of the eco-friendly, long-service lights, but it would be wrong to ignore its potential for modest grace.
Given the vagaries of family and guests, you have to come up with dishes that will tolerate being kept hanging around - casual and relaxed, hands-in-pockets sort of dishes. That means mostly cold: cold meat, chunky salads, bread, cheese, fruit, a glass or two of cheering alcohol, followed by slumber or a walk. And then it's time for tea.
As it happened, I need not have worried. The Browns came by train. The train, by some miracle, was on time. Lunch was ready. A week later, John told me exactly what he had eaten at each meal throughout the weekend and how every dish had tasted, which was just a bit embarrassing, not least because I couldn't remember anything except for the dishes below.
All recipes serve four to six.
Cold belly pork
I've always loved belly pork because its meat is sweet, the fat is pure and the price is cheap. Cook it the day before or even the day before that. Have a baked potato with it, sodden in butter or duck fat. Oh heaven!
1kg belly pork in one piece
3 cloves garlic
50ml mirin (see page 66)
50ml red-wine vinegar
25ml cheap balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Turn the oven to its lowest setting - mine has an S for slow, which brings it to about 80C. You want it no higher than 100C. You need a roasting pan that is not much, if at all, bigger than the piece of meat. Scatter the sliced garlic over the base of the pan, then pour in the other ingredients except the water. Place the pork on top of these, then add water until the liquid in the pan comes about halfway up the meat. Put into the middle of the oven and leave overnight, or even all day, but definitely for six hours minimum. The idea is that the fat is slowly leached out of the meat, keeping it moist while it cooks. When you deem the meat to be done, take it out of the pan and set aside to cool. Carefully cut the skin - aka the crackling-to-be - off the top, and place this in another roasting pan. Season, turn up the oven to 190C/375F/ gas mark 5, and pop the crackling back in for 15-20 minutes. Check from time to time to make sure it's not burning.
Fennel and bacon frittata
What exactly is a frittata? It seems to be all over the place these days. I see it as a kind of egg cake, a handy way to use up leftovers. That is how this recipe came about. If you want to be vegetarian, leave out the bacon. The real secret, however, is the breadcrumbs, which give an extra solidity to the texture.
1 small onion
225g unsmoked dry-cured bacon
1 bunch parsley
1 tbsp breadcrumbs
1 tbsp grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper
Chop the fennel quite coarsely, the onion finely and the bacon somewhere between the two. Chop the parsley finely. Heat the oil in a small frying pan. Add the fennel, onion and bacon, and fry gently until the vegetables are soft and the bacon limp. Beat the eggs in a bowl and season. Stir in the parsley, breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Keep on beating until you tip it over the vegetables and bacon in the pan - that way, the cheese and breadcrumbs stay evenly distributed. Fry gently until the top is just set. The correct procedure at this point is to slide it out on to a plate and then plonk it back in the pan, top down, to finish off cooking. If, like me, you are not up for that daredevil stuff, pop it under the grill or into the oven (170C/325F/gas mark 3) for a couple of minutes until firm. Eat hot, warm, cool or cold.
Salad of cucumber, feta and chives
Fresh, salty, clean and just a bit crunchy. And not that hard to do, either.
1 bunch chives
Peel and cut the cucumber into chunks about 1.5cm square and chuck in a bowl. Cut the feta into similar shapes, but slightly smaller, and add. Squeeze the lemon over them, then sprinkle with olive oil and dust with pepper (salt is not necessary because the feta is salty). Chop up the chives and scatter all over. Sweet and sour aubergine
I have to be honest about this recipe - it is a combination of one that appears in the Casa Moro book by Sam & Sam Clark (verduras de Murcia) and melanzane in agrodolce, versions of which you find all the way through southern Italy.
4 black aubergines (or, better still, 2 large violet ones)
2 sticks celery
2 cloves garlic
225ml olive oil
1 dried red chilli
4 tsp sugar
140ml red-wine vinegar
3 tbsp pinenuts
Salt and pepper
Start by washing the aubergines and cut them into approximately 2cm square cubes. Dice the celery, onion and garlic quite finely. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan or sauté pan until smoking. Toss in the aubergine cubes and rapidly brown all over. Add the celery, onion and garlic, and fry gently for a couple of minutes. Chop the chilli finely and sprinkle it over the aubergine, along with the sugar, and toss lightly so that all of the aubergine cubes get a bit of the sugary chilli action. Turn the heat right down. Pour in the red-wine vinegar and let the aubergine stew for 15 minutes or so, until the cubes are quite soft. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the oregano while still hot. Heat the pinenuts in a frying pan until they begin to go brown, then scatter over the aubergine. Now all you have to do is let everything cool down and start politely exchanging flavours